Our last contact with Gustav Mahler, the Symphony No. 10 beckons like a wraith from beyond. And like a wraith, its first manifestation was gossamer. Thanks is due to musicologist Deryck Cooke, who in 1964 was the first to cobble together an acceptable performing version from sketches. Unlike Mozart’s Requiem or Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” not a single measure was missing from the sketches–it just needed flesh. (There have been three versions by Cooke: program notes indicate that this is the first.) The opening is the heart-breaking Adagio, which initially takes on a valedictory tone, then two-thirds of the way through jars us with its disquieting figures. Anger erupts. Fear. Then more resignation before the first Scherzo appears, with its meter-changing Totentanz. Perhaps Mahler is conveying that toward the end, everything is in flux and changes unpredictably occur.
The Purgatorio, which conductor Gielen believes has nothing to do with Dante and everything with Mahler’s childhood poet friend S. Lipiner, hearkens back to the tones of his previous symphonies. Most notable is the Finale, which opens with ominous drumbeats, inspired by a fireman’s funeral that Mahler witnessed in New York. The effect is starkly frightening and begins one of Mahler’s most evocative finales. Gielen does a splendid job handling this section in particular, perfectly balancing the insistent drum with a rumbling emerging orchestra. The drum subsides and a long ruminative section ensues, interrupted by vain cries of protest. Listen twice to the final minutes and see if you can recall a more peaceful coda. If the facility allows it, this, not Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, may be the music to play on your deathbed.
– Peter Bates